The Culture of Old Believers of Baltic States 

Museum of Applied Art, 10 03 2005–19 06 2005

The term ‘Old Belief’ (Russian staroobryadchestvo, staroverye) refers to the churches and religious communities that do not recognise the reforms launched in the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century by Patriarch Nikon (1652-1666). The Old Belief is a peculiar eschatological variety of Russian Orthodoxy. From the established Russian Orthodox Chruch it differs not so much in its doctrine as in its rites and observances. The priestless Old Believers also have peculiar ecclesiastical structures of their own as well as their own interpretation of certain elements of the Holy Writ and the Tradition. The Old Believers traditionally cross themselves with two fingers, and they recognise only pre-reform icons, liturgical books and observances, and the eight-armed cross. The priestless Old Believers have no regular clergy (and no three-level hierarchy as the Orthodox Church has), and their liturgies and religious observances are conducted by ‘spiritual fathers’ (Russian dukhovny otets or nastavnik) elected among the parishioners themselves. The early Old Believers were characterised by their hostility to all things secular, especially the State and a society ruled, as they thought, by the Antichrist, their refusal to entertain any contacts with ‘wordly people’ (with whom they would not eat, drink or pray together), their anxious expectancy of the ‘world’s end’, their rigid asceticism, their abidance by old traditions, rites and lifestyles, etc. The sociocultural changes of the 19th and 20th centuries as well as internal debates among the Old Believers led to a weakening of their eschatological way of thinking, a relaxation of their ascetic way of life and a more conciliatory attitude towards things secular. An important difference in comparison with the official Orthodox Church is that among the Old Believers (especially the priestless ones) laymen may play a prominent role.
The Old Belief has never been monolithic either organisationally or with regard to religious teachings. As early as the 17th century, the Old Belief split up into two main branches: priestly and priestless Old Believers. The former recognise the institution of priesthood, whereas the latter hold that since the Antichrist took over, there is no ‘true’ clergy left. Both among priestly and priestless Old Believers there used to be a multitude of movements and sects, such as the fugitive priestless Old Believers, the Order of Belokrinitsa, the Chapel movement (chasovennoe dvizhenie), the Pomorians, the Fedoseyans, the Filippians, the stranniki, the spasovtsy and many others. Most of these had become extinct before World war I.
At present there are more than ten different Old Believer’s churches and religious organisations, established in Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvija, Estonia, Poland, Romania and other countries. According to estimations of Russian researchers, the overall number of Old Believers in Russia and elsewhere approximates two millions, though others consider it to be over three millions. The official names of the two priestless Old Believers’s communities are Russian Orthodox Church of Old Believers (since 1988 this is the name given to the priestly Old Believers in Russia and other CIS countries who recognise the clergy of the Order of Belokrinitsa; their administrative centre is the Rogozha convent in Moscow; another centre of this denomination, and their metropolitan see, is in Braila, Romania); and the Old Orthodox Church (these are the successors of the priestly Old Believers who did not recognise the Order of Belokrinitsa established in 1746 but instead set up their own ecclesiastical hierarchy, headed by archbishop Nikola Pozdeyev, in 1923; since 1963 their administrative centre is Novozybkovo in the Bryansk District, Russia). Active communities can be found in Russia, the Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and other countries.
Nowadays the most widespread movement among the priestless Old Believers is that of the Fedoseyans (fedoseevtsy). In the early 20th century they were (alongside the Chapel movement) the most important group of priestless Old Believers, with about 2,5 million followers according to some data. However, in the 19th and especially in the early 20th century many priestless parishes recognised religious marriages and became Pomorians (pomortsy). Nowadays, the Fedoseyans have no official structures uniting and leading their parishes. Traditionally, however, their most prestigious religious centre is the Preobrazhensk convent of Moscow, called The Old Pomorian Celibate Christian Community of Old Believers. The official name of the Pomorian community of priestless Old Believers is Old Orthodox Pomorian Church. It has parishes in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Belarus, the Ukraine and Russia (in these countries they are headed by National Councils and Spiritual Commissions), the USA, Brasil and elsewhere.
The first Old Believers settled in the lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 1650s and 1660s, in areas now belonging to Latvia and Belarus. In 1660, the first Old Believers’ prayer house was established in Liginiški, the present-day town of Daugavpils. About 1685, Old Believers began to settle in Vetka, near Gomel’ (in the province of Minsk), which later on, in the first half of the 18th century, was to become one of the important religious centres of priestly Old Believers in the Grand Duchy.
As far as we know, the first mention of Old Believers’ settlements on the territory of present-day Lithuania in the historical sources goes back to 1679. According to the so-called Degučiai Chronicle, an important monument of the Old Believers’ written tradition, a certain Trofim Ivanov, a captain of the fusiliers who took part in the siege of the Solovki Monastery on one of the islands in the White Sea, deserted from the army, driven by remorse for the cruel treatment of the monks of Solovki, and became one of the first Old Believers settling in Lithuania.
Yet between 1679 and 1710 the number of Old Believers’ settlement in present-day Lithuania was still small. It is the Degučiai Chronicle that provides us with reliable data on the first Old Believers’ prayer house established in Lithuania. It was erected in the village of Puščia, near Kriaunos in the present-day Rokiškis District. The first minister in the parish of Puščia seems to have been Afanasy (or Antony) Terentyevich (1668-1775), who is known to have held this office also in two other parishes in Lithuania and South-Eastern Latvia (Liginiškės and Baltrukai). In the first half of the 18th century priestless Old Believers’ parishes were established in the North-West of the Grand Duchy and also in Courland. Priestly Old Believers’ parishes predominated in the East of the Grand Duchy.
The Establishment of Old Believers’ 
Parishes in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania
As was the case with Protestantism in Western and Central Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Old Believers’ movement of the 17th and 18th centuries paid little heed to the borders and political divisions that ran across Eastern and Central Europe. In the 18th century the Old Believers’ world already encompassed a huge territory spreading from the environs of Kaunas and Tartu in the West to the settlements scattered over the vast expanses of Siberia in the East.
The establishment of Fedoseyan communities in the Grand Duchy in the 18th century was caused by mass emigration of Old Believers as a result of disturbances among the Russian peasantry. One of the principal causes of emigration was the religious persecution of Old Believers in their home country. An important factor was the tolerance shown to dissenters by the rulers, the gentry and the Catholic Church in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Moreover, the doctrine of Fedosy Vasilyev and his followers was preached with success in the Commonwealth.
In the first decade of the 18th century the peasant and Old Believer movement gained a hitherto unwitnessed impetus in Russia and reached the Commonwealth, which has a large stretch of state border in common with this country. The Russian government was forced to deal with the problem of peasant emigration. At first, it tried to stop it by means of administrative measures. In 1716, Czar Peter I issued a decree granting the Old Believers ‘unqualified’ freedom of religion, but in return for this leniency the Old Believers had to pay twice the usual amount of taxes to the State if they stuck to the ‘Old Rite’ and refused to embrace the Orthodox State religion.
In the first half of the 18th century, the motives inclining Russians to emigrate to the Grand Duchy were of various kinds. For many peasants and small tradesmen, the main motive (as had been the case with previous waves of migration from the Principality of Muscovy) was the hope of finding a better place to live abroad, to improve their economic conditions, to escape the taxes and tributes levied by the State as well as the arbitrary rule of landlords and officials. Some of them were attracted or enticed by the generosity of the Lithuanian gentry, who welcomed new settlers on their estates and often offered them protection. Emigration to the Grand Duchy was also favoured by geographical conditions, because there was a long stretch of common border between Russia and the Commonwealth, and in the 18th century it was not effectively controlled on either side.
Religious motives, however, werer paramount. When asked to explain their reasons for emigrating, the Old Believers often mentioned religious persecution in Russia as well as the ecclesiastical authorities’ ‘harsh and cruel’ endeavours to restrain their parishioners or to force the Old Believers back into the fold of the Synodal Church. Part of the Russian Old Believers wished to keep intact and openly to practice their form of worship. In the Life of Feodosy Vasilyev we read that his ardent wish was “diligently to devote his soul to the ancient tradition of the Holy fathers”. The emigration of priestless Old Believers was also encouraged by their eschatological way of thinking as well as by their conviction that with the ‘end of the world’ at hand, it was impossible to live in a society and a state governed by the Antichrist; the Old Believers’ philosophy of life induced them to see themselves as perpetual refugees.
In the first three decades of the 18th century there were large groups of Russian immigrants not only in the Eastern lands of the Grand Duchy (present-day Belarus), but also in the North-West (present-day Lithuania). The flood of emigrants from Russia reached its culmination in the 1710s and 1720s. By 1760 there were at least eight Old Believers’ parishes in present-day Lithuania, judging by the number of prayer houses. Most prayer houses could be found in the North-East and the East of Lithuania.
According to several sources, nine new Old Believers’ churches were erected in the lands of present-day Lithuania between 1760 and 1795. We have exact data for Dudiškės (now in the Trakai District, 1763), Palivarkas (now in the Zarasai District, 1763). Švilpiškės (now in the Rokiškis District, 1786); at the close of the 18th century there were Old Believers’ churches in Rimkai, now in the Jonava District, Svetorėčė, now in the Utena District, and Puščia, now in the Anykščiai District. In the same period, prayer houses seem to have been in use in Sipailiškis, now in the Rokiškis District, Perelozai, now in the Jonava District, and Švenčionys. In all, there were at least 16 Old Believers’ parishes in the lands of present-day Lithuania at the end of the 18th century (judging by the number of prayer houses).
In the late 18th century Russian emigrants could be found in all districts of the provinces of Vilnius and Trakai as well as of the Duchy of Samogitia, whose centres are on present-day Lithuanian territory. It was precisely between the 1770s and the 1790s that the most important Old Believers’ colonies in the North-East (Puščia, Stirniškės, Degučiai, Palivarkas, Samaniai etc.) and partly also those of Central Lithuania (Paežeriai, Perelozai, Baltramiškis etc.) and South Lithuania (Dudiškės etc.), the majority of which still exists nowadays, established themselves.
in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Peculiarities 
of ecclesiastical organisation and religious doctrine
Unlike Protestantism, the Old Belief was everywhere a minority religion, nowhere a State religion. Owing to the repressive policies of the Russian government and the spiritual pressure of the Russian Orthodox Church, several millions of Old Believers were discriminated and declared unwanted members of society in their own country. This was the reason why, in the early history of the Old Believers, most successes in the religious, demographic and literary domain were achieved precisely in the emigrant communities of the Grand Duchy and of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth in general. If we could use modern concepts when dealing with the past, we could say that the history of the Old Believers gives us a picture of their exceptional mode of being, unhindered by borders or spatial limitations, and perhaps even of the situation of religious and/or ethnic minorities in East and Central Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries generally.
Approximately until the middle of the 18th century the geographical distribution of Old Believers in Russia, The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the rest of Europe corresponded more or less to their doctrinal divisions. The priestless Old Believers were strongly represented in the provinces of Novgorod and Pskov, in Pomorye, Estonia, Livonia, Courland and the Northern and Western regions of the Grand Duchy, whereas the priestly Old Believers predominated in Central and Southern Russia and in the Eastern part of the Commonwealth. In the 18th century, waves of both priestly and priestless emigrants (Fedoseyans, Pomorians, Philippians etc.) entered the Grand Duchy. Yet Fedoseyans were still the most numerous group, and in the North-Eastern parts of the Grand Duchy they made up the absolute majority. (From 1823 onwards, the Fedoseyans of Lithuania gradually began to recognise religious marriages and by the first years of the 20th century nearly all Old Believers’ parishes in the country were of the Pomorian denomination.)
The Fedoseyans established their monasteries and parishes with prayer houses in the Grand Duchy. Some of them became centres of religious culture. Between 1699 and 1708 there were two Old Believers’ monasteries in the lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. They were established near the village Rusanovo in the environs of Nevel’ (now in the Nevel’ District, Russia). Their founder was Feodosy Vasilyev (before 1669–1711), one of the most influential originators of the priestless Old Believers’ (Fedoseyan) movement. This community was one of the first spiritual centres of the priestless Old Believers of the Commonwealth and Russia. Both convents consisted of churches, cells, utility buildings and poorhouses and they housed some 600 men and 700 women and girls. The basic features of the Rusanovo convent were protracted liturgies, the ‘angelical’ way of life, rigid discipline, obedience to the spiritual father, the cult of work and community of goods. Yet the Fedoseyan community life (fedoseevskoe obshchezhitye) differed strongly from that of the Russian Orthodox monasteries. There were no consecrations or vows; and celibacy was based on considerations of doctrine rather than on voluntary decisions of individual members of the community.
The religious, theological, polemical and missionary activities of Father Feodosy and his followers in the Rusanovo convent gained them a reputation not only in the region but far beyond its borders, and not only among Old Believers but in the whole Russian society. The years spent in the Grand Duchy were the most creative ones in Feodosy Vasilyev’s life. He corresponded and polemised with Andrey Denisov, the spiritual leader of the Pomorian convent of Vig (in Pomorye, the present-day Petrozavodsk District in Russia) and one of the more talented theologians of the early Old Belief. It was during this polemic that the basic tenets of the priestless movement were formulated (belief in the Christian God and the Holy Trinity, the conviction that the Antichrist had seized power over the world, the rejection of an organised clergy, the administration of certain sacraments by laymen ‘if need arise’, and the cult of the Holy Tradition), and certain points of disagreement with the Pomorians of Vig were discussed (concerning the inscription on the Cross, the recognition of marriages concluded prior to adherence to the Old Belief, and the extent to which one was allowed to have dealings with people of different religion). In 1707 Feodosy Vasilyev wrote his polemical theological treatise Oblichenye (Accusation), an answer to a work entitled The Significance of the Coming of the Antichrist and of the End of the World by S. Yavorsky, metropolitan of Ryazan’ (1703). In this treatise, Feodosy expounds the doctrine of the Spiritual Antichrist. He argues that the Antichrist should not be identified with a physical person but is the renouncement of Christian faith, the evil spirit itself. The reign of the Antichrist had begun in Western Europe (with the Schism dividing the Christian Church in 1054), then spread to the East (with the Union of Brest in 1596), finally to reach Muscovy in 1666, with the ‘renouncement of the true Orthodox Christian belief’.
Unlike the gloomy and pessimistic eschatology of the radical Old Believers and other, related religious movements of the 17th century (whose followers often died voluntarily on the stake), the eschatological element in Feodosy Vasilyev’s teachings is not turned against the world: it is more than just negation of the ‘heresy’ of the Nikonian Church, and it is not just an apocalyptic interpretation of the harsh persecutions inflicted upon the Old Believers as ‘the end of the world’. In the context of the early 18th century, when Russian society was being modernised, eschatology was an essential element of Feodosy’s religious philosophy; it was a means of understanding the changing world and its single components: the Church, time, man, the State, society etc. This explains the antinomy characteristic of Feodosy’s understanding of the world, in which a decided rejection of this world goes together with no less decided acceptance of it. This world, whose beauty and visual diversity are transitory, is doomed and must give way to the kingdom of God, which is ‘not of this world’. In the light of the kingdom of God this world appeared and was understood as being ‘near to its end’. Even fleeing before the Antichrist, Feodosy and his followers did what they could to organise ideal communities, to polemise with the predominant Orthodox Church and to disseminate the Old Belief, even though the priestless Old Believers’ ministers preached the end of sacred history and the approaching kingdom of God.
During the reign of Peter the Great, the cruellest forms of harassment of the Old Believers were abandoned and Russian aristocrats and statesmen began to call on Feodosy from time to time for a talk about the ‘Holy Matters (i.e., the dogmas and rites) of the Old Church and the novelties introduced by (patriarch) Nikon’. Among them were Boris Sheremetev, boyar and general; prince Alexander Men’shikov, favourite of the Czar; S. Naryshkin, boyar and diplomat. During the Northern War the Fedoseyan convent of Rusanovo was plundered several times by both Commonwealth and Russian troops. That was why Feodosy decided to retreat to a more remote place, and in 1708 he returned to the Pskov District in Russia with part of his followers. There, on prince Men’shikov’s estate, he established two Old Believers’ monasteries. In 1711 he applied for official leave to move to a more suitable place, viz. to Ryapino near Tartu. Then, unexpectedly, Feodosy Vasilyev was arrested in Novgorod, handed over to metropolitan Yov, and soon after that, on July 18, 1711, he died (or, according to another version, was killed) in the archpriest’s prison.
The monastery of Gudiškės (in the present-day district of Ignalina), which flourished between 1728 and 1755 (or 1758), was another important centre of Fedoseyans influencing the development of the Fedoseyan community not only in the Commonwealth but also in Russia. In 1752 the so-called ‘Polish Sobor’ of Gudiškės adopted the statutes which would became famous in the history of the Fedoseyan movement. They sanctioned Fedosy Vasilyev’s teachings and severely censured the so-called ‘new marrieds’, i.e., those who recognised marriage in church. This meant a turning point in the history of the Fedoseyan movement. Henceforth the ‘moderately radical’ priestless fraction became more radical. According to the new statutes, the Fedoseyans were not allowed to hold common prayers or to have any contacts with the Pomorians of the Vig convent, who, under the pressure of the Russian authorities, had consented to pray for the wordly rulers in 1737. It gradually became clear that the traditionalist tendencies had only still more strengthened the priestless Old Believers’ feeling of religious identity and increased the relatively closed character of their community. This was why new currents made themselves felt among the hard core Fedoseyans in the second half of the 18th century (Philippians, titlovtsy), and the early 19th century brought more internal division as regional varieties of the Fedoseyan movement appeared, opposing the Lithuanian (commonly called ‘Polish’) Fedoseyans to those of Moscow, Riga or Kazan’.
The second half of the 18th century saw the growth of a third religious centre of priestless Old Believers whose influence extended over the Grand Duchy and Courland: that of Degučiai in the present-day Zarasai District. The convent and parish of Degučiai were founded in 1756 (or 1758) as part of the monks from Gudiškės settled there, and they existed until the middle of the 19th century. According to incomplete data of the 1790 population count on the territory of the civil (Roman Catholic) parish of Salakas, 581 of its inhabitants were Russians, probably Old Believers, which amounts to 8.4%. The local ‘spiritual fathers’ did much to advance and disseminate the Old Belief among the Russian immigrants of present-day North-East Lithuania, South-Eastern Latvia and North-Western Belarus. The clearest proof of the authority the Degučiai parish enjoyed in the whole country was the conferment of the honorary title of ‘common shepherd of the Old Orthodox Christians of Lithuania and Courland’ on its spiritual father Tit Tanaev.
In the second half of the 17th century and in the 18th century, as priestless Old Believers’ parishes spread all over the Grand Duchy, a Fedoseyan ecclesiastical organisation emerged. The Fedoseyan community of the Grand Duchy was structured like the old Orthodox Church, without the three-level hierarchy. One of the peculiarities of religious life among the priestless Old Believers was the constant partipation of both laymen and spiritual fathers in the life of the parish and the church. The parishes were autonomous and functioned as basic units in the structure of the church. The institution of minister or spiritual father was introduced quite early among the Fedoseyans, at the close of the 17th century. The position, rights and obligations of the ministers were regulated by the resolutions of the Gudiškės Sobor of 1752. The Fedoseyans of the Grand Duchy and Courland had their peculiar spiritual ‘hierarchy’. From 1678 until the middle of the 19th century they used the title of ‘common shepherd of the Old Orthodox Christians of Lithuania and Courland’, which, in their view, clearly showed the hereditary character of this pastoral function, handed down by the old Russian Orthodox Church, and the fact that it was kept alive by bestowing this title on one of the meritorious spiritual fathers of the region. In the early history of the Old Believers’ community of the Grand Duchy there was also another body that helped to conduct the affairs of the community: the Sobor. This was an assembly of ministers and representatives of the parishes, called to settle matters of canon law, ethics, administration of the parish and internal discipline.
For the priestly Old Believers of the Grand Duchy, an important centre of both religion and culture was Vetka near Gomel’, in the voivody (province) of Minsk. Old Believers began to settle in Vetka, which was the property of a nobleman called Halecki, about 1685, as Empress Sophia and Patriarch Joachim began to use military force against the Old Believers in the region of Starodub, a Russian town some 15 km from Vetka. In 1695 a priest under monastic vows called Feodosy, together with two secular priests, Alexander and Grigory, consecrated the first priestly Old Believers’ church here, and began to hold regular liturgies in it. Halecki protected his dependants from the Russian authorities’ endeavours to bring them back by force of arms. That was why in course of time 14 large settlements of merchants and tradesmen arose in the environs of Vetka, which became known as the Old Believers’ Jerusalem. In the early 18th century some 40,000 people lived here, and there were several convents for men and women. In an unsuccessful attempt to restore the old ecclesiastical hierarchy among the Old Believers, the religious leaders of Vetka set out to find a bishop. They turned for help to Chrysanthos, patriarch of Jerusalem, to Anthony, metropilitan of Iasi, and finally to Paisios II, patriarch of Constantinople.
This search for a bishop was put to an end in 1735 by the first expulsion of the Old Believers of Vetka. At the command of Empress Anna Ivanovna five Russian regiments marched into Commonwealth territory and led away some 10,000 to 14,000 Old Believers. They destroyed a lot of old icons and the unique library of the Lavrent’ev monastery. Soon the Old Believers returned to Vetka, erected a new church and founded a new men’s cloister. The second expulsion of Old Believers from Vetka took place in 1764, when two Russian regiments commanded by major Maslov led away almost 20,000 Old Believers who were to be deported to Siberia. Part of the Old Believers escaped repression and settled in other places of the voivody of Minsk. To this day, the statutes and traditions of the Old Believers’ church of Vetka have not lost their historical and canonical significance for the Russian Orthodox Church of Old Believers. Vetka has created its own characteristic school of icon painting, in which the heritage of the Yaroslavl’, Moscow and Imperial schools is combined with the younger technique of gilt blanks (zolotoprobel’noe pis’mo). The influence of the Vetka school of icon painting is still felt in the work of the contemporary Old Believers’ icon painters of Lithuania.
One of the principal causes of the emigration of Old Believers was the more favourable religious and social climate they found in the Grand Duchy. In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Old Believers were a new religious group which, in a country where the Counter-Reformation had triumphed, could not fail to attract the attention of the King and the Roman Catholic Church. In 1690 a State commission led by A. Poltev was appointed in order to ‘examine the new religion’. The commission found that there was nothing ‘schismatic’ about the Old Belief and that the Old Believers ‘did not belong to the category of sectarians dangerous to the State and the Church’. Some authors have faith in the evidence of the sources stating that king John Sobieski issued a proclamation ‘concerning the liberty of the Old Believers to live in Poland and their absolute independence of the Roman Catholic clergy in all matters of doctrine and rite’, even though no such document is actually extant. Thus, in the eyes of the government officials and Roman Catholic hierarchs of the Polish-Lithuanian gentry republic, an Old Believer was a free person come from abroad in search of asylum, with only a moderate measure of ‘heretical’ views.
Essentially, the Old Believers enjoyed religious freedom in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 18th century. A good illustration of this freedom of religion was the favourable response count Chodkiewicz gave in 1771 to a petition by group of priestly Old Believers requesting permission to settle in the village of Chernobyl, which was his property. The Old Believers wanted to practice their religion without impediments, to have their clergy and monastics, and to build their churches and monasteries. Unfortunately, no similar petitions are extant from Lithuania proper. In 1779, according to some authors, the authorities granted the Old Believers the right freely to practice their religion in the present-day region of Suwałki and Seinai. There can be no doubt that part of the nobility of the Grand Duchy, such as the Radziwiłł, Tyzenhauz, Czartoryski and Chreptowicz families, whose members often held high offices, welcomed Russian emigrants on their estates, knowing that at least part of them were Old Believers. A resolution adopted by the Warsaw Confederation of 1573, later included in the Third Lithuanian Statute (1588) granted estate owners the right to decide to which religious denomination their dependants should belong. Making use of their status of patrons, the Roman Catholic gentry of the 17th and 18th centuries could allow or forbid the Old Believers living on their estates to practice their religion, and they could compel the Orthodox to become Roman Catholics or Uniates.
The benevolent attitude of the officials, gentry and Roman Catholic clergy of the Commonwealth towards the Old Believers may have had several causes. First, the Old Believers’ religious beliefs and way of thinking were relatively acceptable to them. No doubt the Old Believers, who accepted the Christian dogmas, had more chance of being well received in Poland and Lithuania than the country gentleman Kazimierz łyszczyński, who privately sympathised with atheism and was beheaded and burnt about the same time (1689), or the nobleman Andrzej Grudziński (died 1678), who liked to state that he accepted no religion but, if ever he should get to Heaven, would then also learn which faith was the right one and embrace it. The Old Believers also made a better impression than the so-called ‘Arians’, i.e., the Antitrinitarians who had been banished from the country some 40 years earlier (1658-1660) and, in the words of the Diet’s Bill of Rights, were ‘followers of a dangerous heresy’.
Another, and perhaps even more important, if not the principal reason for this relatively sympathetic attitude towards the Old Believers was the local landowners’ economical and partly political interest. The Grand Duchy had been going through a period of war, catastrophic depopulation and economical decline since the middle of the 17th century, and the early 18th century brought the Northern War, with famine and pestilence in its aftermath. In sum, the country had lost about half of its population and badly needed an increase in people and workforce. Moreover, the spontaneous migrations of at first thousands and later on hundreds of thousands of Russians through East and Central Europe became almost uncontrollable. As if this was not enough, the Counter-Reformation continued its successful offensive against Orthodoxy during the reign of John Sobieski. In the outcome of the Treaty of Andrusovo (1667), out of four Orthodox dioceses only one, that of Mogilyov, was left, whereas the Uniates had no fewer than nine dioceses. We can thus say without much exaggeration that the Old Believers, so harshly persecuted at home, were welcomed in the Commonwealth as enemies of the hostile Russian State and radical opponents of the Russian Orthodox Church.
A third reason, also of great importance, was that the first Old Believers were aliens, and that their religion (both in the 17th century and later) virtually never spread to other ethnic and denominational groups. In this respect, the Old Believers were similar to the Jews, Muslims and Karaims of Lithuania. Fourthly, though most of them were freemen, the Old Believers belonged to the lower layers of society, and therefore they attracted little attention in the Polish-Lithuanian gentry republic. Most Old Believers were peasants or small town dwellers, and they were neither prepared nor able to perform an active role in the social and political life of the country. Initially they did not even reach Vilnius, the vital centre of the country and the ‘holy city’ from which the predominant religion was at that time able to ban all other religions. (An Old Believers’ parish was established in Vilnius in 1830.) In the public life of the country the Old Believers marked their presence, albeit episodically, in the second half of the 18th century, when their merchants began to commission religious and polemical books in the printing house of the Uniate Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Vilnius.
A fifth reason for this tolerance towards Old Believers could have been the rationalist and anticlerical influences affecting the nobility, especially in the second half of the 18th century. A sixth factor could have been the territorial isolation of the Old Believers, who tended to establish themselves in the northern and eastern peripheries of the Grand Duchy, relatively far from the political and cultural centres endowed with a symbolic value, such as the capital Vilnius. Generally speaking, the Old Believers enjoyed much greater acceptance than the Antitrinitarians, Protestants and Orthodox. A certain tolerance towards the Old Believers was in harmony with the image of a ‘haven of tolerance in Europe’ cultivated in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. One should not forget, however, that the religious tolerance of the 18th century Commonwealth was limited, because tolerance was in all respects a rare virtue in this country.
In the 18th century the return of the Russian refugees was a question frequently touched upon in the correspondence and talks between diplomats and other officials of Russia and the Commonwealth. It was under the pressure of Russian diplomats that in 1754 August III issued a proclamation summoning the estate owners of the country not to give shelter to Russian emigrants on their lands and to send those who were ‘hiding from justice’ back to Russia. The local gentry, however, did not haste to send back the emigrants and sought ways to avoid this.
The emigration of Russian subjects to the Commonwealth caused much commotion in Petersburg. The government of Catherine II sought to get the emigrants back both by exercising diplomatic pressure on Warsaw and by sending troops to bring them back by force. Russian politicians even claimed that the 1772 partition of Poland was a means of seeking compensation for the financial and economic losses caused by the emigration of Russians to the Commonwealth. According to the then minister of foreign affairs of Russia, N. Panin, about 300,000 Russians were living in the Commonwealth before its partition, not counting the descendents of Russian emigrants who were born in the Commonwealth. Contemporary Polish and Lithuanian sources mention much smaller numbers of Russian refugees, singling out only the Old Believers, who are stated to have been 100,000 in number before the 1772 partition. In the 1770s the emigration from Russia was a constant, though not central topic of diplomatic exchanges between the Commonwealth and Russia.
As several Old Believers’ communities established themselves in the Grand Duchy in the 18th century, diversity within this traditionally multicultural society became still more pronounced. At a time when the tradition of Eastern Christianity was in decline or underwent a transformation in the Commonwealth, the Old Believers revived it (though in the case of the Fedoseyans, Philippians and Pomorians not without certain modifications), enriching it with specific elements of old Russian Orthodoxy and Russian culture. The most remarkable contributions the Old Believers made to the religious and cultural life of the Commonwealth were the theological concepts of the early priestless movement, their social practice and their impressive achievements in religious publishing.
The priestless Old Believers of the second half of the 17th century and the 18th century took a very specific view of the Church, the State and society in general. They were convinced that the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church and the sacraments they administered were no longer filled with divine grace, because the Antichrist had seized power in the world. Part of the priestless Old Believers treated the Antichrist anthropomorphically and saw him embodied in Patriarch Nikon and, later on, in Czar Peter I. Most of the Fedoseyans and Pomorians imagined the Antichrist as a spiritual principle, manifesting itself in the renouncement of old Russian Orthodoxy – for that was how they viewed the 17th century Church reforms. For them, it was an evil spirit. The Russian Old Believers, part of whom emigrated to Poland and Lithuania, also sought to loosen or even completely sever all links with the dominant Orthodox Church and with the State, they refused to serve in the army, to appear in court etc. They preferred to form their own communities, founded on original theological principles, common labour and collective property, in secluded places such as Rusanovo or Gudiškės, which became centres of the Fedoseyan movement in the first half of the 18th century. (In the middle of the 18th century the name of one of the more radical branches of the Old Believers’ movement, the Philippians or, in Lithuanian, piliponai, spread all over the Commonwealth as a general term referring to all Old Believers, even though there were several other denominations in the country as well: mainly Fedoseyans, Pomorians, Philippians and fugitive priestly Old Believers.)
The printing of Old Believers’ books in the Commonwealth, which achieved its culmination in the second half of the 18th and in the early 19th century, was an exceptional phenomenon in the history of book printing and book art. In the cultural history of the Grand Duchy it is important as a manifestation of the tradition of Eastern Christianity and Eastern Slavonic culture. According to the Polish scholar Mrs. Z. Jaroszewicz-Pieresławcew, the Old Believers’ book production may help us to retrace ‘the interaction of the cultures of East and West’: these repeatedly reprinted religious books, instruments in the campaign against Nikon, combined elements of Uniate (Cyrillic) and Polish typographical art, because the printers did not always ... [leidėjai nevisada griežtai laikydavosi spausdinimo palapiui taisyklės].
In addition to the Commonwealth’s traditional centres of Eastern Slavonic book printing, Vilnius and Ostrog, Old Believers’ books were printed in Mogilyov (1733–1773), the Uniate monastery of Vilnius (1767–1812), Suprasl’ (1777–1791), Pochaevo (1782–1795), A. Tyzenhauz’s printing house in Grodno (1781–1792), and P. Dufour’s printing house in Warsaw (1785–1788 and 1798). They were not only new editions of works printed before Nikon’s reform, but also liturgical books compiled by the Old Believers themselves as well as collections of documents reflecting the history of the Old Believers’ struggle and polemical writings attacking the official Orthodox Church. The initiators of this tradition of book printing in the Commonwealth were the priestly Old Believers of Kaluga. (With the exception of the years 1785–1787, the printing of Old Believers’ books was prohibited until 1905.) An important role was played by the local merchants who entertained close contacts with businessmen in Russia and abroad.
Vilnius took a leading position in the Old Believers’ book printing. It was in the Uniate Holy Trinity Monastery in Vilnius that the first book published by the Old Believers came out in 1767: it was The Sermons of Avva Dorotey, a reprint of a book published in Moscow in 1651. Between 1767 and 1812 no fewer than 50 titles were published in Vilnius by the Old Believers. Most of them are editions of the Bible (the Gospels and the Psalter) or prayer books such as the Horologion or Breviary (Russ. Chasoslov), the Shorter Horologion (Russ. Chasovnik), the Hexameron (Russ. Shestodnev), and also writings of a didactic, hagiographical or edifying nature (the Primer, the Gospels for Instruction, The Life and Miracles of Nikola the Thaumaturge). In all, the Old Believers published some 150 titles in the Commonwealth in the 18th and early 19th centuries, an impressive number for those times. The number of copies was not small either: in Suprasl’, some books were printed in several thousand of copies. Part of these books were in use among the Old Believers of Lithuania.
In social, legal and ethnoreligious respect the Old Believers living in the Commonwealth could be considered a separate estate or social group: this was the view taken by the Polish historian T. Korzon (1897) as well as by Norman Davies (1998) in their Histories of Poland. When in 1808 the Russian Senate debated on the status to be granted to the Old Believers in the lands of the former Commonwealth, some of the more liberal senators argued that both the Old Believers and the rent-paying tenants were socially and legally distinct groups that had no pendant in Russia, where most of the population were serfs.
In the second half of the 17th and in the 18 century the Old Believers were freemen in the Commonwealth: they had the right to move to another landlord’s estate. In the Grand Duchy, freemen could rent land and farmsteads belonging to Crown, Church or private estates. The main occupation of the Old Believers was agriculture. Some of them were craftsmen or were engaged in such trades as carting, joinery, flax cultivation, horticulture or forestry. Some of the Russian emigrants were merchants or small townfolk. Part of the Old Believers lived without a written lease, and later on, especially in the first half of the 19th century, when the management of manors became increasingly based on the corvée, this was used as a pretext to reduce them to serfdom. (The Constitution of 1791 gave the State the right to interfere with the relations between landlords and tenants.)
In 1772 there were probably between 100,000 and 180,000 Old Believers in the Commonwealth. After the partition of 1791, there were still between 100,000 and 180,000 Old Believers left in the country, which amounted to 1.1–2 % of an overall population of 8.790.000.
(Generally speaking, the investigators’ estimations of the number of Russians in the Commonwealth are not based on statistics but on the more or less argued opinion of official or private observators. That is why the figures strongly diverge and the numbers cited by one source may be from three to ten times greater than those of others. So, for instance, count N. Panin declared in 1772 that there could be as many as 300,000 or more Russian subjects in the Commonwealth, not counting their descendants born in emigration. Contemporary Russian sources tended to give unbelievably high estimates of the number of Russian emigrants in the Commonwealth. Court Counsellor A. Svečin, who visited the Commonwealth on official duty in the first years of the 18th century, claimed that there were ‘hosts of hosts’ of them – nearly a million. In 1762 the merchant M. Yakovlev, an Old Believers established in Toropets but originally coming from the Commonwealth, wrote to the Senate in St-Petersburg that ‘in the lands of Poland and Turkey there were no fewer than 1,500,000 Old Believers, counting only men, without their families’, and that ‘in Poland alone there were more than a million of them’. However, Polish sources from the same period, and modern Polish historians, cite much smaller numbers. According to Tadeusz Korzon, there were about 100,000 Old Believers living in the Commonwealth after the first partition. Another Polish historian, W. Wielhorski, estimates the number of Old Believers in the Grand Duchy at the close of the 18th century at about 140,000).
In 1795, what was left of the territory of the Commonwealth of Two Peoples was divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria. This was the Third Partition that put an end to the existence of the State. From free citizens of an independent country, the Old Believers turned into objects of persecution by the Czarist authorities (this persecution would last until 1905), a group of ‘schismatics’ at the western outskirts of an Empire where the dominant religion was Russian Orthodoxy.
In the course of the 19th century, the Russian policy with regard to Old Believers went through several stages. Initially, the Czarist rule did not appear to be very oppressive. Alexander I (1801–1825) seemed to be an enligtened and magnanimous ruler, and the first decennia of his reign raised hopes that the plight of the Old Believers in Lithuania and in Russia itself would change for the better. He was the only Russian Emperor ever to visit the Old Believers of Lithuania (1814). On those years the authorities turned a blind eye to the building of churches by Old Believers and to the activities of their communities and convents throughout the empire.
In the early 19th century, the parish of Degučiai was still a famous religious and cultural centre of the Fedoseyans, as it had been in the second half of the 18th century. In 1819, the spiritual father of the Degučiai community was awarded the honorary title of ‘common shepherd of the Old Orthodox Christians of Lithuania and Courland’. In 1822, a marriage ceremonial was designed for the first time in Degučiai, and from 1823 church books were kept, registering baptisms, marriages and deaths. This means that the Degučiai parish recognised the concept of marriages without priestly sanction (Russ. bessvyashchennoslovny brak). In the history of the priestless Old Believers’ communities of Lithuania, the year 1823 sealed the end of the Fedoseyan epoch and the beginning of a new Fedoseyan-Pomorian epoch. (The more moderate teachings of the New Pomorians would finally prevail among the Old Believers of Lithuania in the early 20th century.)
These changes in the Old Believers’ community coincided with the renewal of the policy of severe religious and civil discrimination of the Old Believers (now numbering about 8,000,000 people in Russia according to unofficial data) during the reign of Nicholas I. This policy could not fail to affect Lithuania’s Old Believers. A whole system of discriminatory measures was designed, including the creation of secret committees for Old Believers’ affairs in Petersburg and in 22 other provinces. Many new laws, often absurd, were passed in order to hamper the religious and social life of the Old Believers. Between 1825 and 1855, out of 33 well-known Old Believers’ prayers houses in Lithuania, 13 were closed down and 8 were destroyed. The more prominent spiritual fathers were arrested, put into prison or forbidden to leave their parishes. The Old Believers’ prayer house in Degučiai was closed down in 1840 and subsequently converted into a Russian Orthodox church.
In the second half of the 19th century, the situation of the Old Believers began to improve. Public opinion became more tolerant with respect to them, and the authorities began to grant them more civil rights. A law passed on May 3, 1883, gave the Russian Old Believers freedom to practice their religion, while still maintaining the ban on its overt ‘manifestations’ (such as walking in procession with the sun, ringing bells or, in the case of priests and spiritual fathers, wearing certain types of ecclesiastical garments). After the insurrection of 1863–1864, the Russian administration in Lithuania adopted a double-faced policy with regard to the local Old Believers. On the one hand, the Czarist authorities still sought to induce or compel them by various means to embrace the ‘unified belief’ (Russ. edinoverye) or official Russian Orthodoxy. On the other hand, they also began to cajole the Old Believers, who were, after all, Russian-speaking people who had preserved their Russian cultural tradition, hoping to use them in their policy of Russification. Although the Old Believers shared in some of the economical advantages which the Russians enjoyed in Lithuania, still the repressive Czarist policies and the restriction of their civil rights bred discontent among them. That is why they never allowed themselves to be made an instrument in the Czarist authorities’ policy of Russification of the country.
It was not until March 17, 1905 that Czar Nicholas II issued his decree on liberty of religion, and the Old Believers had to wait for the manifesto of October 17 of the same year in order to see their civil rights restored. For the first time, these acts gave the activities of the Old believers’ parishes in Russia a legal foundation. A decree of October 17, 1906, laid down procedures for the establishment of new parishes as well as the rights of the parish members and their leaders. In the early 20th century, the spiritual and cultural life of the Old Believers in Russia livened up, and some even speak of a renaissance of the Old Belief. Short-lived though it was (it lasted only some ten years), it still left indelible traces in the cultural tradition of Russia’s Old believers.
It was about that time (late 19th and early 20th century) that the Old Believers’ parish of Vilnius, led by Aristarkh Pimonov, became the religious centre of the Pomorians. In 1901, the first assembly of spiritual fathers of the Pomorian parishes took place in Vilnius. It was also in Vilnius that an assembly of spiritual fathers and representatives of the parishes of present-day Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and Belarus was held on January 25–27, 1906. On the eve of World war I there were no fewer than 45 Old Believers’ parishes in the provinces of Vilnius and Kaunas. Out of these, 11 were established after 1905. There were between 81,000 and 100,000 Old Believers in these provinces.
World War I put an end to this period in the history of the Old Believers.
For the first time in history, the authorities of the independent Lithuanian State officially recognised the Old Believers as a religious organisation. On May 20, 1923, the government issued Provisional regulations concerning the relationship between the organisation of Old Believers of Lithuania and the Lithuanian Government, whereby the autonomy of the Old Believers’ Church was recognised. From 1925 onward, the government regularly granted the Old Believers’ Church a certain finacial support. The ministers were remunerated by the State for keeping church books. The historian of the Old Believers, Ivan Prozorov, describes the 1920s and 1930s as a period of unrestricted freedom of religion and complete equality in rights with the other religions of Lithuania.
Between 1918 and 1940, Kaunas was an important centre of religious and cultural life for the Old Believers. On May 6, 1922, the first assembly of the Pomorian Old Believers’ Church of Lithuania took place in this city. An administrative body was elected: The Central Council of Old Believers. Vasily Prozorov became its first president. From 1934 till 1938 this office was held by Aristarkh Yefremov and from 1938 till 1941 by Ivan Prozorov. In 1923, the Council appointed the so-called Spiritual Commission composed of five spiritual fathers. They had to deal with matters of canon law. In all, eight assemblies of the Lithuanian Old Believers were held in Kaunas in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1937, there were 42,485 Old Believers in Lithuania, which amounts to some 2% of the population. There were 53 active Old Believers’ parishes, served by 51 spiritual fathers.
When World War II broke out and Lithuania recovered part of the Vilnius region on October 10, 1939, the number of Old Believers’ parishes on Lithuanian territory grew to 60, and the number of faithful to some 70,000–80,000. In June 1940, however, the whole country was occupied by the Soviet Union. The first spell of Soviet rule in 1940 and 1941 was heavy in consequences for the Old Believers of Lithuania. In June 1941, many Russian Old Believers was deported to Siberia together with Lithuanians, Poles and Jews. Among them were the president of the Council, Ivan Prozorov, and his predecessor Vasily Prozorov.
Between 1941 and 1944 Lithuania was under German occupation. All inhabitants of the country suffered from the atrocities of Nazi rule. Almost the whole Jewish community was exterminated. But along with Jews, Lithuanians, Poles and Romanies, the local Russian population was also affected, especially those who had collaborated with the Soviet partizans or given them support, and those who had sympathised or were suspected of having sympathised with the Soviet regime (among them, there were relatively many Old Believers or descendants of Old Believers). Many hundreds were shot, e.g., in the neighbourhood of Rokiškis, Užusaliai, Bagdonys and Palivarkas, where the Nazis and their accomplices, recruited among the Lithuanians and other local inhabitants, held mass executions. Many Russian Old Believers were sent to Germany for forced labour. In the spring of 1941, some 10,000 Old Believers from the Suwałki region in Nazi occupied Poland were moved to Lithuania. Here, their situation was initially rather difficult. On November 23, 1943, the Old Believers of Lithuania held their assembly and elected a new Supreme Council as well as a Spiritual Court. Lithuanians, Poles, Russians and even Jews in the ghettoes – all tried to keep up some form of religious and cultural life in their communities. It was really life in the shadow of death.
The years of Soviet occupation, just like those of the occupation by Czarist Russia, were not uniform in character. The most tragical period was that between 1944 and 1953. The Soviet authorities did not allow the Old Believers to create a common religious centre for the Pomorian Old Believers of the Soviet Union, and they also tried to hamper the activities of the Supreme Council of Old Believers in Vilnius. The mass deportations of inhabitants of Lithuania did not spare the Russian Old Believers either. Almost one fifth of the spiritual fathers, and many of the faithful, were arrested and deported. Among them was the president of the Supreme Council, Ivan Romanov. Between 1945 and 1955 more than ten prayer houses were closed down, a few of them were destroyed. In face of the repressive Soviet policies against the Old Believers, the Spiritual Court adopted, in May 1948, an ambiguous resolution stating that ‘The Old Believers’ Church, guided by the Holy Writ ... has always recognised and recognises Soviet rule as sent by God’. Anxious to find a modus vivendi with the communist régime, the leaders of the Old Believers’ Church became involved, from the early 1950s onward, in the Soviet peace movement, which served mainly purposes of propaganda. After Stalin’s death (1953), and especially after 1956, the pressure of the Soviet régime abated somewhat, but it still remained what it had been – totalitarian and oppressive.
Between 1948 and 1965, Fyodor Kuznetsov (1869–1965), spiritual father of the Vilnius parish, became president of the Supreme Council. He combined this function with that of chairman of the Spiritual Commission. After his death, he was succeeded by Yosif Nikitin (1905–1996), spiritual father of the Kaunas parish. Ivan Yegorov (1905–1998) became president of the Supreme Council in 1969 and was twice reelected afterwards. Whatever the conditions in which it functioned, the Supreme Council of Vilnius was, in Soviet times, the only religious centre of Pomorian Old Believers in the whole Soviet Union. Since 1954 the Supreme Council publishes, together with the Old Believers’ parishes of Riga and Moscow, the annual Almanac of the Old Believers’ Church.
At the initiative of the Supreme Council in Vilnius, three important assemblies of Old Believers where held in 1966, 1974 and 1988. They were attended by spiritual fathers and other representatives of Pomorian Old Believers’ parishes from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, the Ukraine and Russia. Many of them recognised the spiritual authority of the Supreme Council in Vilnius. In 1971, the Russian Orthodox Church lifted the anathema it had once cast on the ‘old rite’. This did away with the principal cause of three centuries of animosity between the branches of Russian Orthodoxy and opened the way for a diologue between Orthodox churches. A solemn assembly of the Pomorian Old Believers’ Church was held in Vilnius in 1988 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the Christianisation of Russia.
The situation of the (predominantly rural) Old Believers’ parishes in Lithuania was negatively affected not only by Soviet anti-religious policies and persecution of the church, but also by collectivisation, industrialisation and urbanisation. Between the 1940s and the 1980s the number of faithful and of spiritual fathers in the rural parishes fell dramatically, though the number of officially registered parishes did not reflect this process. In 1948, there were 56 Old Believers’ parishes, more than 50 spiritual fathers and nearly 88,700 faithful in Lithuania. In 1969 there were still 56 parishes left, but in 1992, for a number of 51 parishes, there were only 11 spiritual fathers and, according to data of the Old Believers’ community leaders, slightly more than 33,000 faithful. Then, however, a process of dynamic growth of urban Old Believers’ parishes set in, especially in such towns as Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipėda, Zarasai and Panevėžys. In Soviet Lithuania, the Old Believers’ Church was second only to the Roman Catholic Church with respect to the number of parishes.
After Lithuania had recovered its independence, on November 22, 1990, the Supreme Council of the Old Believers adopted a new statute for the Pomorian Old Orthodox Church of Old Believers. The Old Believers’ Church has to meet new and difficult challenges in the domain of catechisation and of social and ethical policies. Thousands of Russian Old Believers in Lithuania put their hopes in it success. Yet the Old Believers’ Church need a lot of time to cure the ailments and repair the damages caused by 50 years of communist rule. The way of thinking and the moral behaviour of people accustomed to live in a climate of godlessness, lack of responsibility, blind submissiveness and perpetual falsehood have been deeply affected. Moreover, the Old Believers’ Church of Lithuania has to face new and complicated problems: scissions within some parishes, competing fractions within the leadership of the Church, material difficulties as a consequence of economic recession and the failure to obtain restitution of immovable property once belonging to the church.
In 1995, the Lithuanian government recognised the Old Believers’ Church as one of the nine traditional denominations of the country. The Old Believers’ regained the autonomy they had enjoyed between 1918 and 1940. According to incomplete data of the 2001 population count, there are more than 27,000 Old Believers in Lithuania (0.78% of an overall population of 3,484,000). We may assume that the number of people descending from Russian Old Believers’ or mixed (e.g., Russian and Lithuanian Catholic) families, having some Russian blood in their veins and/or having connections with the tradition of the Old Belief, is considerable greater. At present, there are 59 Old Believers’ parishes in Lithuania registered by the Supreme Council of the Old Orthodox Pomorian Church in Lithuania.
Grigorijus Potašenko.
Translated from the Lithuanian by Axel Holvoet


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